As an actor, poet, rapper and songwriter, Saul Williams is a natural-born creative. Growing up in Newburgh, New York, he quickly discovered a flair for drama when he performed Shakespeare at the age of 9. He went on to earn coveted acting credentials from Morehouse College and the Tisch School of the Arts while concurrently immersing himself in NYC’s cafe poetry scene.
Into his 20′s – ever driven by an insatiable thirst to learn – Saul forayed into music and released a Rick Rubin-produced debut LP. He shared stages with Mars Volta, Nine Inch Nails, Nas, The Fugees, Erykah Badu and Zack De La Rocha (to name a few) and even kicked off a string of collaborations with electro-alterna-god, Trent Reznor. To add to all of this, Williams has starred in Sundance Film Festival winner, Slam; been published in The New York Times and Esquire, and penned several collections of politically-charged poetry including The Dead Emcee Scrolls and the forthcoming Chorus.
Upon moving to France in 2009, Saul learned the language and now puts it to use in foreign films, like the acclaimed Aujourd’hui from Franco-Senegalese director, Alain Gomis. True to his form – completely unwilling to commit to just one passion – he’s also recently wrapped a tour of North America in support of his latest musical work, Volcanic Sunlight (2011).
You’re a man with many ambitions but your first was to be an actor, is that true?
That is very true; that’s how it all started. I tried it when I was around 9 and I had a good time. I had an opportunity to do Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and I came home just feeling really clear about knowing that’s what I wanted to do. So from then on, that’s where I put my focus.
And how did you transition into the world of poetry?
One might ask, if you’re already studying Shakespeare, is there really a transition into poetry? (laughs) I grew up on Shakespeare and Hip Hop so it wasn’t much of a transition. I didn’t start writing poetry until my twenties and I became inspired to start a journal. I loved to write.
Though Rap is considered a form of poetry by many, I’m not sure I consider all rappers to be poets – I think there’s a fine line there. Where do you stand on that?
I don’t know that it’s always a fine line; I think it can be a very heavy line between them, actually (laughs). Having said that, I didn’t call myself a rapper or a poet..To me, I was just writing journal entries. But, yeah, generally there’s always a comparison to be between any musical form and pure poetry. The main difference really is that Hip Hop is often competitive; its purpose is to make you dance. You don’t have those same intentions when you sit down to write a poem.
The first time I was asked to read one of my poems in front of my peers, I thought it would be easy because I was accustomed to reading out loud from books. As soon as I started, I suddenly became aware of how personal and exposing it was, and out of nowhere, I started to cry. Have you had a surprisingly emotional moment like that?
I absolutely had a moment like that; it was with my poem, Gypsy Girl. The first time I read that out loud I had no clue how difficult an experience that would be and I had to fight to make it through.
When you started doing open mic, did you call on your acting techniques?
I’m hesitant to say I did because acting implies ‘acting’ and when I read my poems, there’s no need for that. I found it very nice to be able to read something I had written as opposed to something by Chekhov or someone like that, and it was great to not have to be searching for the character or intention. That being said, I’d already gone through graduate school for acting so I was literally coming from play rehearsals to open mic. I suppose I benefited from it in the way that I was by no means uncomfortable onstage and I knew things like how to speak from my diaphragm and how to project. Lots of the other poets there would walk onstage really shy but I didn’t have that. I was very comfortable in that setting. You know, as the acting teachers will tell you, the technique is only there for when the muse doesn’t strike.
Was it just as easy for you to move into music as it was to go from acting into poetry?
Hmmm…I started writing rhymes as a kid because I wanted to be a rapper and up until the age of 17, I wrote raps every day. And when I wrote them, to be very clear, I would write a first verse, second verse, third verse and choruses. I was writing songs. Listening to everything from Rakim to The Fresh Prince to Public Enemy taught me how to do that. What I wasn’t writing however was the music and so that’s what started happening after I started writing poetry. When I was finally given the opportunity to record, I realized that I was very particular about what I put my voice over and I realized that I would have to write the music myself. That was by no means easy for me and I’m still learning that…I’m still learning.
I’m really interested to hear about how you crossed over to work with Trent Reznor and a band like Nine Inch Nails.
I did my first album with Rick Rubin – and that was a crazy thing for me because I grew up listening to Rick Rubin’s music: RUN DMC, Public Enemy, LL Cool J; all that music he produced was the music of my childhood. When Rick signed me, I didn’t know who Trent Reznor was (laughs) but after that, when I did my second album and toured for it, Trent asked me if I wanted to tour with him and I did. After doing the first show, he asked me if I wanted to record with him and I thought it would be a cool experiment. For me, wanting to work with a great producer is the same as an actor wanting to work with a great director; they’ll pull a great performance out of you.
And that turned into a reciprocal relationship…He worked with you on The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust and then you with him on Nine Inch Nail’s Year Zero.
Obviously your genres of music were worlds apart, so what was it that you connected on?
I think we connected directly on Public Enemy (laughs) and we connected on our love of drums machines. People who really love music and love making music just naturally become open to wanting to learn and explore other sounds. Trent’s music stands out in the rock world because he makes it on drum machines, which is what every little black kid in the ghetto grows up listening to. So he was studying us (laughs), you know what I’m saying?
When you sat down together and started working, how did you inspire one other?
He works like a Hip Hop producer and so his style of working made a lot of sense to me. The thing that was sometimes different between us was our taste in beats and the way we’d hear a beat. You can tell the way a person hears a beat by where they choose to place their voice over top of it. If you gave Trent the Funky Drummer beat or the Big Payback beat without him ever hearing how James Brown sang it, you can’t be guaranteed that Trent would lay down his voice in the same way. He’d interpret the music differently based on his own sense of rhythm and timing. So that’s how we inspired each other. It was, ‘Ah, so that’s how you hear that! I would never have done it that way.’ Even in the way we would nod our heads to the music: ‘Ah, you’re listening the bass but I’m following the guitar.’
That’s great…I don’t think nearly enough artists truly collaborate anymore. Many will record a track ‘featuring’ somebody but it looks and feels like it’s more for promotional purposes than for the exercise of truly creating something. Why is it so important to you to continually reach outside of yourself and to invite others in?
I do it is because I think any actor realizes the importance of remaining a student, you know? They study the characters they play…and they learn from their directors. I feel like a student, and when it comes to making music, I know that I am. Musically, I already know what I like and what I don’t like and what moves me and what doesn’t, but when it comes to making it, I’m very clear that there are things I can learn from different people. That’s what’s exciting – especially when you’re working with someone who you feel is a master of something. A Rick Rubin or a Trent Reznor – they’re masters at what they do.
But would you put Trent on the same level as Rick as a producer?
Trent to me is a great artist and someone who is wonderful at producing, but I don’t know if Trent knows how to produce something without putting his signature sound on it and that’s the sign of him being an artist first. When you hear his music, you’re clear that it’s Trent because he has his own ‘Trent Reznor’ sounds you know? On my record that I just finished with Renaud Letang – he’s produced Feist, Manu Chao, Jamiroquai and tons of artists – you don’t know that it’s Letang because he has no signature sound. His goal is to bring out the artist’s signature sound and that’s the mark and the essence of a producer. It’s like the difference between watching an Oliver Stone film with a laugh track over a rape scene or something…You know the director wants you to know he’s there in the room versus a film that feels seamless; you get caught up in the story and then walk out and go, ‘Wait a minute – who the fuck directed that‘?
So looking back at your first record, Amethyst Rock Star, and then at your latest LP, Volcanic Sunlight, what have you learned as a student of music?
A lot. When I listen to Amethyst Rock Star, I hear that I’m exploring the idea of song structure, but naively. It was what it was: beats made to go under poems I had written earlier. With Volcanic Sunlight, I wrote all of the music first;I’m singing comfortably. I don’t want the words to get in the way so I’m not saying very much. With Amethyst Rock Star, the words were all over the place. The difference is that one is lead by words while the other is lead by music. Volcanic Sunlight in many ways is the album I wanted to make when I was making Amethyst Rock Star but didn’t know how to execute.
Does that make you more proud of Volcanic Sunlight somehow?
No; I was super proud of Amethyst Rock Star at the time. It was a great experience and it turned out great for what it was. I’m very proud of Volcanic Sunlight because it’s great for what it is, too.
What’s on your plate right now?
I’m working a lot in film right now and enjoying the process – so I say that this is my film year but meanwhile I’m in the middle of an album tour, you know? (laughs)
It must be exciting to have a variety of talents and to not really know from one year to the next what opportunities will arise…
It’s pretty fun…but landlords don’t always like it (laughs). Somehow, no matter what I’m doing, I feel like I’m always doing improv, you know?